On the planet Eternia, at the center of the Universe, Skeletor's army seizes Castle Grayskull, scatters the remaining Eternian defenders, and captures the Sorceress of Grayskull, planning to add her power to his own by the next moonrise.
Skeletor's archenemy, the warrior He-Man, veteran soldier Man-At-Arms, and his daughter Teela rescue Gwildor from Skeletor's forces. Gwildor, a Thenorian locksmith, reveals that Skeletor has acquired his invention: a "Cosmic Key" that can open a portal to anywhere by utilizing sound keys. The device was stolen by Skeletor's second-in-command, Evil-Lyn, allowing Skeletor to breach Castle Grayskull.
With Gwildor's remaining prototype of the Key in hand, He-Man and his friends travel to the Castle. They attempt to free the Sorceress but are overwhelmed by Skeletor's army and forced to flee through Gwildor's hastily opened portal, transporting them to Earth. The Key is misplaced on their arrival and discovered by two New Jersey teenagers, orphaned high school girl Julie Winston and her boyfriend Kevin Corrigan. The pair attempt to figure out what the Key is and accidentally send a signal that allows Evil-Lyn to track the Key and send her henchmen – Saurod, Blade, Beast Man and Karg – to recover it.
Kevin, an aspiring musician, mistakes the Key for a synthesizer and takes it to a music store run by his friend Charlie. Karg's team arrives and chases Julie until He-Man comes across her and rescues her. Karg's team returns to Grayskull where, incensed by their failure, Skeletor kills Saurod and sends the others back to Earth, with a larger force under Evil-Lyn's command. Unable to find Julie, Kevin is taken to Julie's house by Lubic, a detective investigating the disturbance created by Karg's team. Suspecting the Key is stolen, Lubic confiscates it from Kevin and leaves. Immediately afterward, Evil-Lyn captures and interrogates Kevin for the Key's location with a mind control collar, before pursuing Lubic.
Julie and the Eternians release Kevin from the collar before they go after Lubic. They manage to get hold of it in Charlie's store, but Skeletor's forces catch up with them, and a pitched battle ensues. Evil-Lyn recovers the key and summons Skeletor to Earth. Skeletor's forces overwhelm the Eternians and Julie is mortally wounded by Skeletor's lightning blast, which simultaneously erases the memory storage of Gwildor's Key. He-Man surrenders to save his comrades, and is returned to Eternia as Skeletor's slave. Skeletor demands that He-Man kneel before him for all of Eternia to witness, before he is killed. He-Man refuses and is lashed by Blade's laser whip in an attempt to make him kneel. He-Man is still standing when the moon rises and Skeletor absorbs the powers of the universe. Declaring himself the Master of the Universe, Skeletor asserts his victory and continues to torture He-Man with energy blasts.
Back on Earth, Gwildor repairs the Cosmic Key, and Kevin recreates the tones necessary to create a gateway to Eternia. The group, including Lubic who attempts to arrest them, are transported to Castle Grayskull, where they begin battling Skeletor's forces. Resenting that Skeletor absorbed the power of the Universe without sharing it with her, Evil-Lyn deserts him along with the other henchmen. Skeletor accidentally frees He-Man who then reclaims the Sword of Grayskull. The pair battle until He-Man shatters Skeletor's staff, removing his new powers and restoring him to his normal state. He-Man offers mercy but Skeletor draws a concealed sword and attempts to kill He-Man; He-Man knocks Skeletor from the throne room into a towering pit below. The freed Sorceress heals Julie, and a portal is opened to send the Earthlings home. Hailed as a hero for his bravery, Lubic decides to remain on Eternia.
Julie awakens on the morning of her parents' deaths by plane crash. She prevents them from taking the ill-fated flight by taking their keys, and runs outside to find Kevin. Kevin confirms that their experiences were real, producing a souvenir from Eternia: a small blue sphere containing a scene of He-Man in front of Castle Grayskull with his sword raised above his head. In a post-credits scene, Skeletor's head emerges from the water at the bottom of the pit, saying "I'll be back!".Dolph Lundgren – He-Man
Frank Langella – Skeletor
Courteney Cox – Julie Winston
James Tolkan – Detective Lubic
Christina Pickles – Sorceress
Meg Foster – Evil-Lyn
Chelsea Field – Teela
Jon Cypher – Man-At-Arms
Billy Barty – Gwildor
Robert Duncan McNeill – Kevin Corrigan
Anthony De Longis – Blade
Tony Carroll – Beast Man
Pons Maar – Saurod
Robert Towers – Karg
Peter Brooks – Narrator
One of the original drafts from the script by David Odell (whose previous writing credits include Supergirl and The Dark Crystal) was reviewed in the third episode of the He-Man and She-Ra podcast, Masters Cast. The original draft included more time spent on Eternia and Snake Mountain, had Beast man in a speaking role, and even revealed that He-Man's mother was originally from Earth, as per the character Queen Marlena from the Filmation animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, thus linking the two planets. Describing her character, Foster said that Evil-Lyn is not villainous, "she is just doing her job and she knows how to get results, even if it means being harsh." Langella agreed, calling Evil-Lyn a female more dedicated to Skeletor's cause than any man; she is obsessive around Skeletor because she is slightly lovelorn. The filmmakers considered having Foster wear eye-lenses to mask her naturally pale-blue eyes, but decided that her natural eyes fit the character better. However, they did augment Foster's chest, fitting cleavage into the character's costume. Foster wanted the character to have a large hairstyle, rather than the short style featured in the film.
When offered the role, Langella said that he "didn’t even blink ... I couldn't wait to play him." Langella cited his then-four-year-old son's love of Skeletor while running around his house yelling He-Man's battle cry "I have the power!", as the reason he chose to play He-Man's archenemy.
Comic book writer/artist John Byrne compared the film to Jack Kirby's comic book metaseries Fourth World, stating in Comic Shop News #497:
The best New Gods movie, IMHO, is Masters of the Universe. I even corresponded with the director, who told me this was his intent, and that he had tried to get [Jack] Kirby to do the production designs, but the studio nixed it.
Check it out. It requires some bending and an occasional sex change (Metron becomes an ugly dwarf, The Highfather becomes the Sorceress), but it's an amazingly close analog, otherwise. And Frank Langella's Skeletor is a dandy Darkseid!
Director Gary Goddard clarified this in a letter appearing in John Byrne's Next Men #26, in which he stated:
As the director of Masters of the Universe, it was a pleasure to see that someone got it. Your comparison of the film to Kirby’s New Gods was not far off. In fact, the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there. I intended the film to be a "motion picture comic book," though it was a tough proposition to sell to the studio at the time. 'Comics are just for kids,' they thought. They would not allow me to hire Jack Kirby who I desperately wanted to be the conceptual artist for the picture…
I grew up with Kirby's comics (I've still got all my Marvels from the first issue of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through the time Kirby left) and I had great pleasure meeting him when he first moved to California. Since that time I enjoyed the friendship of Jack and Roz and was lucky enough to spend many hours with Jack, hearing how he created this character and that one, why a villain has to be even more powerful than a hero, and on and on. Jack was a great communicator, and listening to him was always an education. You might be interested to know that I tried to dedicate Masters of Universe to Jack Kirby in the closing credits, but the studio took the credit out.
Brian Cronin, author of the "Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed" column, concludes that "the film itself was not intended to be literally a reworked Fourth World, although the intent WAS to make the film a tribute to Jack Kirby — just a tribute to ALL of his work, not just the Fourth World."
The musical score of Masters of the Universe was composed by Bill Conti. It was recorded by several European orchestras, chiefly the Graunke Orchestra of Munich (the only one to be credited on the soundtrack album) and conducted by a number of conductors, chiefly Bruce Miller and Harry Rabinowitz (Rabinowitz received sole credit). Conti did not conduct his score because it could not be recorded in the United States as "there was a musicians strike or something like that... So it went to various places." He and the score mixer Dan Wallin assembled the score from the various recorded takes, because there were problems with the orchestral performances ("We didn't have anything that went from beginning to end without a problem").
The soundtrack album was released on record, cassette and compact disc by Varese Sarabande in 1987; it was subsequently issued in an expanded version by Edel. In 2008, La-La Land Records released a two-disc edition with the complete score and the original album presentation; in 2012, Intrada Records issued the complete score (the entirely of disc one and tracks 1–5 on disc two) on one disc.
Prior to releasing it, the Cannon Group touted Masters of the Universe as the Star Wars of the 1980s. Despite releasing alongside the height of the success of the toy line, animated series, and related merchandise, Masters of the Universe began as the third-highest-grossing film of the weekend in North America on August 7, 1987, earning $4,883,168, behind Stakeout ($5,170,403) and The Living Daylights ($7,706,230). The film quickly left the charts altogether with a North American gross of $17,336,370.
Masters of the Universe was released on DVD October 23, 2001. A 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc was released by Warner Home Video on October 2, 2012.
Masters of the Universe received negative reviews from critics and holds a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 23 reviews. Variety called it a "Conan-Star Wars hybrid ripoff" that is "a colossal bore". Walter Goodman of The New York Times wrote, "If you liked the toy, you'll love the movie." Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times called it "a misfiring, underdone epic". Johanna Steinmetz of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the film, while predictable and derivative, entertains audiences through its side plots set on Earth.
In a retrospective review, Glenn Heath, Jr. of Slant Magazine called it a "jarring mix of corny screwball comedy and choppy action heroics". Chris Eggertsen of HitFix, in an article identifying the film's campy, positive qualities, called it "an objectively bad film with a big heart". Joshua Winning of Digital Spy wrote, "...beloved of '80s kids but scorned by critics, it's a high camp oddity that we should celebrate on its own terms".
Billy Barty received a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Supporting Actor for his performance in the film, but 'lost' to David Mendenhall for Over the Top.
The commercial failure of Masters of the Universe, among other films such as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Lifeforce, contributed to the eventual closure of Cannon Films. Cannon Films had intended to create a Masters of the Universe sequel, indicated by the end credits with a surprise reveal that Skeletor survives his fall. The sequel titled "Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg" was written and followed He-Man, who returned to Earth to battle Skeletor, who has left Earth as a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the film was to feature Trap Jaw and She-Ra. Pro surfer Laird Hamilton was originally to replace Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and the only aspect known about the sequel's screenplay was that He-Man would have returned to Earth and was disguised as a professional quarterback. With a low budget of $4.5 million, the sequel was to be directed by Albert Pyun, consecutively with the aborted Spider-Man movie. The project was abandoned when Cannon would not pay Mattel's fees. The production instead utilized the already-made costumes and sets for the low-budget sci-fi film Cyborg.
Masters of the Universe was Lundgren's first leading role in a feature film following his success in Rocky IV, and he later labeled it as his least favorite film role. Conversely, Langella considers playing Skeletor to be one of his favorite roles.
A new He-Man film directed by John Woo was reportedly being developed in 2007, but despite many rumors circulating the Internet regarding the film's production status and casting, the project was never officially green-lit. The film rights to He-Man have reportedly since reverted to Mattel.
In September 2009, Sony took over the rights from Warner Bros. to produce the live action adaptation after Mattel and producer Joel Silver, who was previously involved with a potential film, couldn't agree on creative direction for the film. Sony and Escape Artists' Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, and Steve Tisch will now start developing the project from scratch for Columbia Pictures. In April 2010, Sony hired screenwriters Mike Finch and Alex Litvak to draft a new script. Warner announced that John Stevenson, director of Kung Fu Panda will direct the upcoming feature. On May 12, 2009, it was announced that the scripting duties had been handed to Evan Daugherty, with Stevenson still attached to direct.
In late 2012, Deadline reported that Jon M. Chu was in talks to direct the film. Original He-Man actor Lundgren did an interview with IGN about a possible role in the film as King Randor. October 12, 2012, Richard Wenk is hired to rewrite the script for the film. On March 28, 2013, Chu spoken that the film is still early is in the experimentation and also it won't be campy but an origin story. On October 7, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Terry Rossio would script and that Black, Blumenthal, and Tisch would produce the film and it will be set on Eternia; the site also reported that Chu will not direct the film.
On January 10, 2014, Schmoes Know reported that Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Rian Johnson (Looper), Andrés Muschietti (Mama), Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders (The Croods), and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were named as frontrunners to direct the film. On February 26, it was reported that directors Mike Cahill, Jeff Wadlow, Harald Zwart, and Chris McKay are on the short list to direct. On April 9, Schmoes Know reported that Wadlow will direct the film, but The Hollywood Reporter announced that he's rewriting the script of the film.
On August 19, 2015, it was announced that Chris Yost had been hired to write the film.
On January 22, 2016, Deadline reports that McG will direct the film and will also oversee a rewrite of the latest script by Alex Litvak and Mike Finch, while Escape Artists’ Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch are on board as producers.
On June 24, 2016, Kellan Lutz tweeted that he has a meeting with both McG and Mary Viola about having the role of He-Man.
On April 27, 2017, it was announced that the film will be released on December 18, 2019. At the same time, McG left the film and David S. Goyer has been hired to rewrite the script.